Nautilus member Victor Gibson is now an authority on offshore safety. But looking back on his career, he tells SARAH ROBINSON that he was quite the daredevil in his day...
Victor Gibson’s sea career did not get off to an auspicious start. ‘My apprenticeship was so boring,’ he smiles. ‘Chipping and painting day and night, or looking out at nothing from the bridge for eight hours. I trained on all kinds of vessels with P&O in the 1960s, and the only part I really enjoyed was working on the product tanker Maloja for six months, because there was a challenge to it — you had to gain specialist knowledge about the cargo.’
That experience must have been enough to show young Victor that there was something worthwhile about the profession, because he completed his apprenticeship and went on to work as a junior officer. Deciding not to stay with P&O, he took a job with Tate & Lyle aged 21. ‘I liked being a second mate because I got the chance to do the navigation,’ he recalls. ‘By the time I was 25, I had navigated my way around the world.’
Further adventure was to come as the young officer took his next job on a tramp ship: ‘I went to China during the Cultural Revolution and was in the Suez Canal just before the Six-Day War in 1967 — we could hear the gunfire behind us as we sailed away.’
Amid all the drama, Victor continued his studies until he gained his master’s certificate aged 27, then went ashore — prompted partly by the fact he was newly married. ‘I became a stevedore superintendent in Southampton, which is like being a cargo supervisor but you work for the port rather than a shipping company,’ he explains. ‘I was then seconded to Union Castle, and was sometimes in charge of loading and unloading the Cape mail ship. I became a bit of a star, really, because I knew how to plan things and deal with the dockers.’
At the beginning of the 1970s, he adds, Union Castle was the biggest employer in the dock, but it was starting to be apparent that the company’s general cargo business model would be overtaken by the container trade. Victor wanted to get in on the action, but after failing to secure a move to the container berth, he set off for the Welsh port of Barry to be cargo superintendent for Geest. ‘That was a good job in many ways,’ he says. ‘I liked the responsibility of handling a £1m annual budget. But I didn’t have an assistant, and the long hours made it hard to see my young children.’
It was time for a new adventure, this time with a family-friendly element: ‘In 1976 I looked at the burgeoning oil industry in the North Sea, and saw they were offering seafarers a good deal, with six weeks on and six weeks off to be at home.’ It didn’t hurt, either, that it was a brash new industry with plenty of thrills and opportunities for a self-confessed adrenaline junkie like Victor.
‘It could be scary at times, but it was exciting,’ he remembers. ‘I started off as a chief mate on an anchor-handler with 10 crew, and was captain after only 18 months. We’d sail out of Peterhead in our little ship and head out to the rigs to do some truly challenging work. There was no DP [dynamic positioning] equipment in those days, but I’m pleased to say I only hit a rig once!
‘One of the most frightening activities was the mate’s job of letting the anchor go as the ship steamed in towards the rig. You’d see the chain doing an arc through the air with sparks and flakes of rust flying… We’d get very close to the structure before turning and tying up with a rope on each quarter. But when I took command I realised we could back in all the way in a much more controlled manner. I liked the way there was scope for innovation in the sector.’
There was enough going on to keep Victor happy in the job for 10 years, working for O.I.L. and Star Offshore. But by 1986 things weren’t looking so good. ‘That was the last big oil crash before the current one,’ he explains. ‘The work became less secure, and we’d be told our ship would be laid up, only for them to decide it wasn’t, then it was, then it wasn’t — off and on again all the time. And in December that year we found ourselves embroiled in an industrial dispute because the company were trying to change our work pattern to two months on, one off.’
Like his shipmates, Victor was a member of the Union (the Nautilus predecessor NUMAST), but when a strike was called, he was not able to take part because he was a master. However, he found a way to support his colleagues. ‘The company knew that members weren’t allowed to join the strike until we went into port, so they stopped me from going into Stavanger to pick up an anchor chain, and instead told me to anchor off Lerwick and prepare to take part in a rig move. I pointed out that we didn’t have enough crew members onboard for a job like that, and after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing we ended up anchored outside Aberdeen.
‘While all this dithering had been going on, NUMAST had succeeded in negotiating better terms including proper redundancy agreements — and that applied to me too, so I took the money and left.’
At this point, Victor cast around for something to do, initially developing a plan for a business selling tank-cleaning machines. He also started doing some freelance writing about the offshore sector, and in the end it was this that pointed the way for the rest of his career.
‘I wrote some stuff for the Offshore Support Journal and Reed’s Tug World Annual Review,’ he says, ‘and Reed’s commissioned me to write a book about how to operate a supply ship, because there wasn’t anything like that on the market at the time. The book was eventually published by Butterworth Heinemann, and it remains one of the things I’m proudest to have done.’
His book Supply Ship Operations also helped kickstart a new phase in which Victor became an offshore safety expert. ‘The company Ross Offshore saw the book and commissioned me to write safety cases for rigs,’ he explains.
In the wake of the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster, one of the Cullen inquiry’s principal findings had been that all offshore installations, by 1995, must have a safety case — a process borrowed from the nuclear industry requiring that all risks must be identified and measures taken to make them as low as possible.
As these documents had not been a major feature of offshore practice up to that point, there wasn’t much for Victor to go on, but he used a guidance document from the consultancy Cramer and Warner as a start, and developed quantitative and qualitative risk assessments, eventually using sophisticated computer software. As time went by, his safety case consultancy work became a multi-employee business called Marex Marine Services, and by the year 2000, he says many rig owners in the North Sea were using the template he had developed, which also went on to form the basis of the IADC standard European Safety Case.
Victor retired from Marex Marine in 2007, but has continued to share his expertise through his website. Now in his 70s, he has recently published a book about learning from past incidents — A Catalogue of Disasters — which was reviewed in the Telegraph last month.
It is perhaps ironic that someone who spent much of his career looking for excitement should become such a strong advocate for safety. However, Victor always recognised the master’s duty to protect his crew, and his years working in the wild environment of the pre-Cullen North Sea have certainly lent authority to his recommendations.
‘I’m very proud to have been part of the effort to make the North Sea the safest offshore oil and gas field in the world,’ he concludes. ‘I think it may be thanks to Marex Marine that so many companies now use the effective bowtie risk assessment method, for example, but there’s still work to do. The common thread running through most offshore incidents is a lack of marine expertise onboard the rigs, and I’m never going to retire fully until we get this addressed.’
Read Victor Gibson’s lively comment and analysis at www.shipsandoil.co.uk.
A Catalogue of Disasters is available to buy at the above site, or can be ordered from all good booksellers.